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Economists = Idiots? Part 1829

It was their idea, so it’s no surprise they like paying interest on reserves, even excess reserves:

For quite a while, the Fed was quite happy to have that money on its books. Indeed, the power to pay interest on reserves was considered a key tool to keep control over all the liquidity the Fed pumped into the system during the financial crisis. The Fed wanted to see bank lending increase, but in a controlled fashion, so as not to fan the flames of an inflation surge.

But as worries about the outlook have risen, the game has changed. Some see a move to drive all those reserves into the economy as a key way to produce better economic growth. Markets got to thinking Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke would indicate this as a possible path when he testifies before the Senate Wednesday and the House of Representatives Thursday on the economic and monetary policy outlook.

Economists, however, think ending the interest on reserves policy would be a bad idea.

Right, because the $2,534,722.22 a year paid in interest on $1 Billion in excess reserves is a drop in the bucket for the U.S. Federal deficit.

And because the risk-free rate of return that features in so many economic models should be different for intermediaries (financial institutions) than wealth-creators (businesses).

And because “excess reserves” are money issued by the government which is inflationary because of the multiplier effect of money—which, of course, assumes the money is being invested. (As this money is, in taxing our tax dollars and giving them to Vikram Pandit, Ken Lewis, Lloyd Blankfein, and Jamie Dimon [in descending order of theft; YMMV].)

And, of course, because that $1 Billion that is not being used in the economy would only produce about $5-8 Billion in GDP, which is roughly, what, 50,000 to 80,000 new jobs?

But, of course, banks have better use for the money than potential workers.

[Barclays Capital’s Joseph Abate] noted much of the money that constitutes this giant pile of reserves is “precautionary liquidity.” If banks didn’t get interest from the Fed they would shift those funds into short-term, low-risk markets such as the repo, Treasury bill and agency discount note markets, where the funds are readily accessible in case of need. Put another way, Abate doesn’t see this money getting tied up in bank loans or the other activities that would help increase credit, in turn boosting overall economic momentum. [emphasis mine]

Oh, well, since they’re not going to lend the money anyway, we should have no trouble paying them interest on it. What is The Fed other than a mattress stuffed by tax dollars?

The key phrase is “precautionary liquidity.” If you assume that the recovery started in June or July of last year,* then you would expect “excess reserves” held for “precautionary liquidity” to have declined over time, as the need for “precautions” is reduced as the economy becomes safer. But that hasn’t been the case.

Choose one (or both) from: (1) the banks don’t believe the economy is recovering or (2) the banks are holding assets on their books at higher levels than they know they are worth, and are therefore using “excess reserves” to cover real losses until they can’t any more.

It is unclear whether Abate sees the banks’s unwillingness to be intermediaries as a feature. But at least he knows not everyone is doing it.

Abate buttressed his argument that banks really just want to stay liquid by noting who is holding reserves at the Fed. He said the 25 largest U.S. banks account for just over half of aggregate reserve levels, with three by themselves making up 21% of the reserves.

So the biggest of the Too Big to Fail banks have decided not to act as financial intermediaries, preferring instead to continue feeding from the taxpayer trough (where the $25MM in interest really is a drop in the bucket) and/or pretend that they are more solvent than they really are.

And, according to the Wall Street Journal, economists believe we should continue to pay those banks for misvaluing their assets and refusing to perform their economic function.

The economic theory I learned is that capital is paid its marginal product. The marginal product of those excess reserves is zero, while the required reserves are intended to explicitly provide “precautionary liquidity.”

Unless the TBTF banks are arguing that the Fed’s current Reserve Requirements are too low—a possibility, perhaps, though the FT cites evidence contrariwise—the basis of all economic and financial theory indicates that they should receive no interest on those reserves.

An “economist” who says otherwise is either lying or selling something.

*I would argue—see yesterday’s post—that June 2009 is rather eliminated by the non-recovery of more than half the states’s job markets a full year later.

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Fed Policy

Discussion point: Is it time for the Fed to start contracting its’ balance sheet and otherwise withdrawing the special financing it provided while it was faced with the zero interest rate bound
and preparing to soon raise fed funds.

My fed policy index says the zero bound should no longer apply and that it is time for the fed to start preparing to soon raise fed funds.

This is my version of the Taylor Rule. The biggest difference is that my index gives inflation and unemployment equal weight while the standard Taylor Rule gives inflation double the weight of the various measures of excess capacity.

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AIG, Logic, Insanity, and Tim "I Saw Nothing" Geithner

Go read:

  1. If you’re only reading one post, see FT Alphaville, which incorporates and expands upon…
  2. Tom Adams and Yves Smith’s posting at Naked Capitalism discussing the document and the reality of the situtation.
  3. the document itself is available from either The Long Room or the Huffington Post.

If the FRB of NY really believed that their only option was payment in full and not telling anyone about it, then Tim Geithner’s leadership abilities make Ben Bernanke look like Dwight Eisenhower.

BarryO is, apparently, finally trying to make clear the distinctions between TARP, TLGF, TALF, CPLF, Maiden Lane, Maiden Lane II, Maiden Lane III, etc. and the actual Stimulus Package. A good place to start: One was a huge giveaway that has led to overreported profits and high taxpayer expenses. The other was passed by Congress.

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The One Sentence Everyone Needs to Read and Understand

Bruce Bartlett:

The Fed has talked openly about new procedures to soak up the bank reserves it has created even as those reserves remain largely idle and unlent.

You don’t get inflation if there is no money multiplier in play. So long as the banks are just holding the cash, worries about monetary policy leading to inflation are at best a shibboleth.

(via Brad DeLong)

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Bernanke Part 2 of 2: Leaders Lead, or Just Say No

The world would be a much better place if people had listened to Tom last August:

Now some elite opinion favors Ben Bernanke’s reappointment, but politicians are irritated over Fed stonewalling of bailout oversight and others (e.g. Dean Baker) point out that Ben Bernanke who put the Fed throttles to the firewall to save the world is also the Ben Bernanke who carried over Greenspan policy until it was too late. [links in original]

Not a strong enough source for you? How about the Internet’s Chief Bernanke Apologist? Brad DeLong last August:

I am surprised that he is being reappointed. I would have thought that the combination of people angry because he has given too much public money to the banks and people angry because he didn’t stop the recession would together make him damaged and that Obama would want to bring in a fresh face–never mind that Bernanke had no way to try to lessen the recession save by policy steps that inevitably involve giving money to the banks.

Tom also dealt with that:

To which the obvious response is, duh, who says it has to be one or the other? A reality-based critique of the bailouts allows them to be both effective at saving the world and unconscionable screw-jobs that kept an array of bad actors from paying for their greed and incompetence. (The latter clearly feeds a lot of the underlying sentiment of the tea partiers, even if it’s ultimately the greedy and incompetent who are marshalling it.) However, considering Team Obama’s political tone-deafness, it’ll be a pleasant but major surprise if they let Bernanke go back to Princeton for some R&R.

And DeLong himself (today) moves the goalpostsnotes where the problem is centered:

[Bernanke] is no longer the academic intellectual who advocates inflation targetting. He is, instead, the voice for the consensus of the Federal Open Market Committee–and a member of that committee who can, by his own internal arguments, move that consensus at the margin. So he is going to reflect that consensus….[A] Fed chair who doesn’t reflect the consensus in public has less power to move the consensus in private. From my perspective, I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with Ben Bernanke’s (private, intellectual, academic) analysis of the current situation. What is wrong is that the FOMC consensus is wrong—and Bernanke’s public statements reflect that wrong consensus. So here I tend to blame Obama more than I blame Bernanke for the recent character of Bernanke’s public statements–for the fact that Fed policy and rhetoric right now is not more Gagnonesque, because Obama could have done things over the past year to move the FOMC consensus that he has not done. [emphases mine]

This is a true statement—but it is no less true now than it was in August, and Ben Bernanke has been the ostensible leader of the FRB since then—and, indeed, since 2.5 years before then, as the crisis was unfolding.

In the past four years, Bernanke has “led” the Federal Reserve. And even those who are not sympathetic to Steve Keen’s interpretation of Bernanke’s flaws (h/t Yves and Naked Capitalism, who printed it themselves as well) would have to agree that the sounds coming from the Fishers* and Hoenigs, not to mention Bernanke himself, are more reminiscent of Morgenthau than Volcker.

Which should have been the death knell for his renomination. To turn Brad DeLong’s statement on its side: Ben Bernanke has been unable to lead and change the consensus of the Federal Reserve Board, even marginally, to be more in line with what Ben Bernanke, the skilled economist, knows would be a better policy.

Leaders lead. Ben Bernanke hasn’t and doesn’t.* For that alone, he should be replaced, and Janet Yellen nominated to replace him.

*This one was reprinted, without several of the cronyism acknowledgements, in the WSJ comics section today. I prefer the original.

**The similarity to the Canadian Liberal Party’s selection of Celine Stephane Dion as their leader should not be overlooked. That they had the good sense to replace him after one term is a sign of sanity the Obama Administration would have been wise to consider. (That they compounded the mistake by replacing him with a pro-torture American conservative is a mistake from which one would expect the Obama Administration could and presumably will learn.)

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Bernanke Interlude

Via David Wessel’s Twitter feed, the WSJ publishes a letter:

Ben Bernanke is a good person, a fine academic and a well-respected professor. But those traits have no bearing on whether he should be reconfirmed as Federal Reserve chairman….

Applying accountability principles, there’s no way Chairman Bernanke should be reconfirmed by the Senate, let alone reappointed by the Obama administration….He’s been at the helm from the very beginning of this Great Recession. That alone warrants a “no” vote on reconfirmation.

At this point, I feel obligated to note that if you’re going to declare this The Great Recession—i.e., if you are assuming the chance of having the third Depression is over*—then Bernanke deserves credit, not blame. (Even those of us who do not assume we’re out of the woods admit we aren’t quite sunk yet, though 17.3% unemployment is problematic at best.)

In addition, the Fed’s behavior over the past 15 months has put America on a very dangerous path. The Fed has increased the monetary base (high-powered or wholesale money) by the largest amount ever, from colonial times to the present, times 10. Without an exit strategy, inflation is a virtual certainty over the coming decade, while an effective exit strategy virtually assures a further weakening of the U.S. economy. [emphasis mine]

This is Gospel for the WSJ editorial page, and a logical confusion of the first order. Any “exit strategy” assumes that the conflict is primarily over, so any exit strategy would, by definition, not weaken—let alone “further weaken,” which suggests that the writer’s faith that “the Great Recession” is accurate is wavering—the economy. (We can, and will, discuss where All That Money Has Gone; suffice to say, it’s not exactly producing a Multiplier Effect.)

But the writer saves the best for last.

And lastly, on a more personal note, [Bernanke] doesn’t have the gravitas of a Paul Volcker, Alan Greenspan or William McChesney Martin. In this day and age of crisis management, gravitas is essential. Almost anyone would be better than Mr. Bernanke.

Well, at least Arthur Burns is conspicuously excluded. It’s nice to know that Arthur Laffer believes in gravitas, while his best-known disciple believes “deficits don’t matter.”

*Yes, I could 1873-77 as a Depression in the United States. Looking at the evidence, it would be difficult not to.

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And Next Mark Will Ask for A Pony

Slowly moving back into everything, and so catching up with Mark Thoma’s use of Paul Volcker as his latest line of Defense of Giving the Fed More Regulatory Power. (Amusing in itself, given Volcker’s description of the Fed before he was Owned by the Obama Administration.)

I like Thoma (a lot more than he likes me) and his professional work is clean and clear. (Judging by his videos, he’s also the second best college-level Econometrics teacher I’ve ever seen—and it’s no crime to be behind Peter Loeb in that regard.)

But he’s an Incurable Optimist, especially in his blogging. For instance:

If we ask tough questions and insist that the Fed take action in response to the problems that are uncovered, oversight can be improved without moving the authority outside of the Fed.

The English translation of that is: Better the Devil We Know Has Already Failed and that doesn’t have—or appear to want—the Governance Skills to Do the Job Required.

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Those Low Rates

Via (what else?) Alea’s Twitter feed, John Taylor defends himself against Ben Bernanke:

“The evidence is overwhelming that those low interest rates were not only unusually low but they logically were a factor in the housing boom and therefore ultimately the bust,” Taylor, a Stanford University economist, said in an interview today in Atlanta.

It’s not actually that they’re not saying the same thing. Bernanke argued (and I agreed) that low rates did not cause the housing bubble. We have had low rates without producing housing bubbles before. (Other asset bubbles are another question.) Indeed, the last lasting housing bubble peaked just as the Federal Funds rate did:

More accurately (and also via ATF), Caroline Baum takes Bernanke to task for sleight-of-hand:

For example, Bernanke takes great pains to rebut criticism that the funds rate was well below where the Taylor Rule…suggested it should be following the 2001 recession. The Taylor Rule uses actual inflation versus target inflation and actual gross domestic product versus potential GDP to determine the appropriate level of the funds rate.

Substitute forecast inflation for actual inflation, and the personal consumption expenditures price index for the consumer price index, and — voila! — monetary policy looks far less accommodating, Bernanke said.

It’s always easier to start with a desired conclusion and retrofit a model or equation to prove it.

Ouch. Is it a great day when the journalist is making more sense about the economist’s work than another economist is?

But more to the point, the argument that rates were kept unnaturally low from ca. 2002 through ca. 2005 depends very much on the idea that the Fed does not have two jobs. (Once again, h/t to Dean Baker.)

The other half below the break

As Baker notes at the link above, “the dual mandate [of the Fed] is full employment (defined as 4.0 percent unemployment) and price stability.”

Let’s be generous. I’ve plotted the Civilian Employment/Population Ratio and the Official Unemployment Rate below. The blue line at 4.5 applies only to the Unemployment Rate (red line). (I didn’t plot it at 4.0 because that would be cruel.)

So what we have is a situation where (1) the Employment/Population Ratio by the end of 2006 is barely back near the level it was at the end of the recession of 2001 and (2) it is only near the end of 2006 that the Official Unemployment Rates approaches the official target rate (which it hadn’t seen since before the 2001 recession).

It seems apparent that Taylor’s “Rule” (which considers inflation and GDP, but not employment per se) is not compatible with official Fed mandates. In such a context, Caroline Baum’s “gotcha” is more a case of her using inappropriate variables—and Bernanke substituting a more appropriate model, given the Fed’s mandates—than it is a case of Bernanke “retrofitting.”

No wonder John Taylor says we should worry about inflation; in his world, we never have to worry about unemployment, so long as there are enough bubbles to inflate GDP.

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Bernanke: We Didn’t Do a Good job Regulating, so Let Us Regulate More

UPDATE: CR appears to agree with me, even as he raises another point:

Bernanke used data from other countries to suggest monetary policy was not a huge contributor to the bubble … however, Bernanke didn’t discuss if non-traditional mortgage products contributed to housing bubbles in other countries. This would seem like a key missing part of the speech.

I’m willing to believe that my interpretation of this speech is inaccurate, but here’s the evidence:

Some observers have assigned monetary policy a central role in the crisis. Specifically, they claim that excessively easy monetary policy by the Federal Reserve in the first half of the decade helped cause a bubble in house prices in the United States, a bubble whose inevitable collapse proved a major source of the financial and economic stresses of the past two years. Proponents of this view typically argue for a substantially greater role for monetary policy in preventing and controlling bubbles in the prices of housing and other assets. In contrast, others have taken the position that policy was appropriate for the macroeconomic conditions that prevailed, and that it was neither a principal cause of the housing bubble nor the right tool for controlling the increase in house prices. Obviously, in light of the economic damage inflicted by the collapses of two asset price bubbles over the past decade, a great deal more than historical accuracy rides on the resolution of this debate.

If I have to pick, I’ll take the latter group. Easy money alone doesn’t cause a crisis. So when he says:

Can accommodative monetary policies during this period reasonably account for the magnitude of the increase in house prices that we observed? If not, what does account for it?

The first answer is clearly “No.” And the second answer is important. Eventually, he answers it:

I noted earlier that the most important source of lower initial monthly payments, which allowed more people to enter the housing market and bid for properties, was not the general level of short-term interest rates, but the increasing use of more exotic types of mortgages and the associated decline of underwriting standards. That conclusion suggests that the best response to the housing bubble would have been regulatory, not monetary. Stronger regulation and supervision aimed at problems with underwriting practices and lenders’ risk management would have been a more effective and surgical approach to constraining the housing bubble than a general increase in interest rates. Moreover, regulators, supervisors, and the private sector could have more effectively addressed building risk concentrations and inadequate risk-management practices without necessarily having had to make a judgment about the sustainability of house price increases.

The Federal Reserve and other agencies did make efforts to address poor mortgage underwriting practices. In 2005, we worked with other banking regulators to develop guidance for banks on nontraditional mortgages, notably interest-only and option-ARM products. In March 2007, we issued interagency guidance on subprime lending, which was finalized in June. After a series of hearings that began in June 2006, we used authority granted us under the Truth in Lending Act to issue rules that apply to all high-cost mortgage lenders, not just banks. However, these efforts came too late or were insufficient to stop the decline in underwriting standards and effectively constrain the housing bubble. [emphases mine]

As Albert Brooks once noted, he “buried the lede.” Bernanke notes that the “nontraditional” products constituted around 1/3 of the market by 2003. (As many others have noted, those mortgages were not passed through/to FHA/Fannie/Freddie, either.) Two years later, guidelines were being developed.

An institution that did not attempt to regulate claiming that it should be given more regulatory power is an invitation to disaster. Or am I missing something?

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Today in "Economists Are NOT Totally Clueless" (Interlude; Part 2 of 3 or 4)

Tyler Cowen can count:

In sum, maybe three percent expected inflation conflicts with the desire to rapidly recapitalize banks through maintaining a wide interest rate spread. Maybe we need that zero nominal short rate or at least the Fed thinks we do….

I also regard this as a somewhat gruesome hypothesis. It means that “Main Street” is paying for “Wall Street” (forgive me the use of those awful terms) in at least two ways: high unemployment and inability to earn much on one’s savings….

The term structure also implies that the market is expecting rising short rates, so if the bank mess isn’t cleaned up soon, heaven forbid. The spread, as a means of restoring bank profitability, won’t last forever.

And Ryan Avent (via Brad DeLong) points out the next piece of that puzzle:

[T]he Fed’s commitment to undo its interventions is already having an effect. In expectation of more of these moves to come (as well as, perhaps, increases in interest rates) markets have been bidding up the dollar, which has busily appreciated during the month of December. That, in turn, will deprive the American economy of a potential source of demand—growth in consumption of American exports thanks to the effect of a weak dollar.

More bluntly, we’re seeing a move toward contractionary monetary policy at a time when unemployment is at 10%. Funny that.

I can’t think of a scarier way to end the year. Sorry about that. Best wishes for 2010—we’re all going to need them.

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